The Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski has just died in Oxford, England, at the age of 81. I was not familiar with him, and so I am poorly positioned to scold the Tribune and Sun-Times for posting the same wire-service obituary that neglected to mention that at one time Kolakowski taught in Chicago.

But he did, from 1981 to 1994 at the University of Chicago, primarily as a member of the Committee on Social Thought (as was mentioned in the New York Times’s staff written obit). And in 1990 the University of Chicago Press published a collection of his essays, Modernity on Endless Trial. “Mr. Kolakowski’s is a vision of people clawing at truths that give way under their fingers,” wrote Arthur Danto, reviewing the book for the New York Times.

Kolakowski was the best kind of Marxist, a former Marxist, who concluded it was the “greatest fantasy of our century,” as well as that “there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils.” He spoke his mind, his works were banned, and in 1968 he went into exile from Poland, where 41 years later the parliament fell silent on word of his death.

“What philosophy is about is not Truth,” said Kolakowski in a 1982 lecture in Australia. “Philosophy can never discover any universally admissible truths; and if a philosopher happened to have made a genuine contribution to science (one thinks, say, of mathematical works of Descartes, Leibnitz, or Pascal), his discovery, perhaps by the very fact of being admitted as an ingredient of the established science, immediately ceased being a part of philosophy…

“The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver truth but to build the spirit of truth.”

Kolakowski doesn’t go so far as to say here that we should cherish the truth but beware of anyone who claims to know it. But he says “philosophers neither sow nor harvest, they only move the soil. They do not discover truth; but they are needed to keep the energy of mind alive.” He calls them “diggers,” and as important as the diggers are the “healers,” those who “apply skeptical medicine” in order “not to let us get carried away by wishful thinking.”
Skepticism, pessimism… Splendid qualities in a serious person.